Mentoring, supervision and a consistent hand guiding youth in both life and work skills were pinpointed time and again Wednesday by V.I. Youth Council members as essential to keeping the territory's struggling youngsters in school and on the right path.
The newly re-established council met at Gov. Juan F. Luis Hospital to begin organizing itself and prepare to coordinate summer youth employment programs. Much of the discussion focused on what the council might look to do in the future and how the divergent agencies might best work together.
"I would like the council to really consider high school seniors who do not plan college or post-secondary education," said Labor Commissioner Albert Bryan to the council. "Look in terms of finding them opportunities for summer employment and training and persuading them to pursue more training," he said, "because those are the ones who find themselves without a lot of options and who get into trouble."
Richard Difede, chairman of the V.I. Workforce Investment Board, said creating new programs was not as important as mentoring and oversight. Without those elements "we lose a lot of people, and our success rate goes way off," Difede said. Youthnet, a new online clearinghouse for youth programs, has a lot of potential as a "backbone" to help track individuals, he said.
Youthnet, online at www.youthnetvi.org, is a web-based resource for young men and women to access government services, apply for training programs, interact with counselors and teachers, and for government and private agencies dealing with youth to share information in real time.
Any student can access the site and look for job postings and program information. But Youthnet also offers systematic online case management, with Human Services case workers, teachers, probation officers, team coaches and others all working together on the same platform to help track the progress of students who are having difficulties of one form or another.
If adults find out quickly and react when students begin to move off track—whether toward drugs, gangs or just giving up on school—experience shows there is a much better chance of "recapturing" the student and getting them back on track, Difede said.
"The more we can engage one-on-one with students, even if it is just shadowing them through the online system, the higher our success rate will be," he said.
Winsbut McFarlande, territorial gang coordinator with the V.I. Police Department said intervening at a young age is important.
"We need to find a way to redirect them from the path we see them on and motivate them to do something different," he said.
Young children who are heading for trouble are looking for guidance, he said. "I see this when I go into the schools. And they are not getting it at home. They are not bad, but they need guidance and often they go along with the person next to them."
McFarlande said he and the Police Department were looking to develop summer programs this year for about 100 troubled youth.
A surprising number of children get most of their internet access from the territory's libraries and, though starved for funding, the libraries have a growing menu of web- and computer-based resources, along with other under-used and lesser known resources, said Ingrid Bough, territorial director of Libraries, Archives and Museums.
"We have a library at Golden Rock that serves the blind and handicapped, where we have 20,000 books on tape," she said. "So people who may not necessarily read that well can come there and still pick up a lot of information by listening."
Along with trading ideas and discussing methods, the council began making plans for this summer's government-sponsored youth training and employment programs.
Lauretta Petersen of the Labor Department said $100,000 ($50,000 per district) is available for summer enrichment programs for children ages 14-15 this year. The money will be distributed on a competitive basis as mini-grants of $4,500 to organizations and groups with programs to teach life skills and conduct career exploration.
Roughly 500 to 600 children will be able to participate, she said. In the past, these programs have been more extensive, but due to the recession and budget cuts, this summer will have four weeks of half-day enrichment programs, she said.
Another $200,000 is available for work experience programs for youths ages 16-18, she said. This year, rather than simply subsidizing a few months of employment, Labor wants to keep participants involved longer and focus employment and internships toward getting its participants in the direction of two-year degrees and industry skill certifications, she said.
The Youth Council will oversee both summer enrichment and work programs. Requests for proposals for the summer enrichment mini-grants should go out next week, with responses back by early May, said Adele Soto, executive director of the V..I. Government Workforce Investment Board.
Overall, the Labor Department has $1.2 million for summer youth employment programs, of which roughly half is federal funding, said Petersen. Labor will spend that money on student employee wages, transportation, uniforms, tools, child care, subsidies for private internships and all the other costs of Labor's summer youth employment programs.
Created by statute in 1998, the Youth Council became moribund some years ago and is now being re-established. Police, vocational education, Labor, library and other government officials work together with non-profit organizations and private companies on the council. It helps oversee and coordinate youth training and employment programs, from tutoring and mentoring to occupational skill training.
The Youth Council will meet again in May to begin evaluating work program proposals and awarding mini-grants.